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Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Mar 08, 2012 12:48PM ● By Anonymous

Every year as wintertime comes to an end, the final frosts blanket our lawns and the first blades of green poke through our gardens, some of the most majestic of birds prepare to depart the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge. Another winter survived in its sanctuary, eagles and falcons and osprey (oh my), gear up for perpetual migration. But like any group of their stature, they deserve a proper send-off. Enter the Blackwater Eagle Festival. Combining stately birds, lectures, and experts with live music, food and archery, the Blackwater Eagle Festival is a celebration that is, literally, for the birds. And if birds of prey are your bag, this annual festival is certainly your scene.

Laura Bankey, the director of conservation at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, attended last year and says her family had a great time. “It’s a really good family experience, with a little bit of something for everyone, and a stunning array of things for kids to do.” From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 10, the Refuge plans to host upwards of 2,500 people, all eager to feast their eyes on a live American bald eagle, or have their picture taken with an array of other raptors.

“We have the highest concentration of eagles east of the Mississippi and north of Florida,” says Ray Paterra, the Refuge’s visitor services manager. “Last year, we counted 180, so if you want to come somewhere and see a bald eagle, there’s really no better place in the winter months than here.”

Depending on the species, the birds generally arrive in November and take off in March, although some just make Blackwater a layover on their flight further south. Some of the birds return to Canada, while other species head for the “prairie pothole region” of Minnesota and North and South Dakota, Paterra says.

The Refuge serves as a sanctuary for all kinds of endangered and otherwise beloved creatures, but this particular day is dedicated to birds of prey. Teamed up with other organizations like the Pocomoke River State Park and the Pickering Creek Audubon Center, the event hosts guests of the fowl variety, in addition to human visitors.

This year, Tuckahoe State Park will bring their American bald eagle, and the Salisbury Zoo will bring a peregrine falcon, which may even impress onlookers with a small flight demonstration.

An expert from the Salisbury Zoo shows off a peregrine falcon.

“We typically have eight to 12 species of live birds [in attendance],” Paterra says. “A lot of these birds are very used to people, so although you can’t hold them, you can get close. People can get right up next to a great horned owl and get their picture taken with it.” And don’t fret about your ability to snap the perfect shot of such a rare experience—in the past, the series of lectures included a photography workshop. Sort of a Photography 101, where beginners are taught by professionals about how to stage a good photograph, and about F-stops and apertures. Paterra says the lecture is likely to be back this year. Nearby, kids can delve into an assortment of interesting activities, from dissecting owl pellets, to building birdhouses, to printing their own t-shirt. The adventurous can even learn to shoot a bow and arrow.

“We set up an archery range for the kids,” Paterra says. “We provide the bows, arrows, targets, we give the instruction, and then we allow the kids to shoot them. Parents usually gravitate over and shoot too. The idea is to get the kids outside and get the parents involved.”

The day is ultimately a one-stop shop for nature-oriented entertainment. After checking out the lectures, live animals, and demonstrations, visitors can go on what’s called an eagle prowl. The Refuge organizes several small buses, each with a driver and an interpreter, that will take visitors to various sites and set up spotting scopes, to see the eagles in their habitat. “This year, because the eagle prowls are always in such high demand, we’ve got a big coach bus that will take laps around a wildlife drive, with someone to do interpretations and explain wildlife management,” Paterra says.

With the exception of food, which will be sold by a neighboring non-profit, the Festival, in its twelfth year, is free of charge.

“The main focus is eagles, and going out and seeing eagles,” Paterra says. “We’re trying to get people to understand and appreciate outdoors.”

As for Bankey, she says she and her family are looking forward to going again. “If our schedule allows, we’ll go back every chance we get!”

For more information about the event, visit